10th Belfast Film Festival review
The idea of using the horror film as a vehicle for social and political commentary, as a means to examine the darker impulses of damaged individuals within a broken society certainly isn’t anything new, but it has perhaps taken more of a backseat in recent genre work in favour of pure sensationalism. Increasingly having to raise the bar to surprise and shock jaded horror audiences who have seen it all before, it’s often either a case of pushing the boundaries of gore, torture and dismemberment, or indeed giving the audience more of what they’ve seen before only through the post-modern remake eye of retro appreciation for the playing with standard tropes and expectations. It’s all the more refreshing then when a film like Let The Right One In or Strigoi comes along with its own unique voice, upturning expectations of what one can expect from a horror film while still tapping into those very real dark impulses that lie behind the best of its kind.
If it’s not quite as chilling or consistent in tone Let The Right One In (or even comparable in that respect), Faye Jackson’s UK independent horror film Strigoi is no less impressive for the fact that uses comedy as a vehicle for its own unique spin on the genre. Set in Romania moreover, the film draws on the characteristics, tradition, history and folklore of the place to find a background of old enmities, prejudice and political turmoil over the years on which to base its very real horrors. It’s not the fact itself that the dead have risen then that causes terror to the little Romanian country community – the condition of the strigoi mort, vampire-like living-dead, is a known and accepted phenomenon of the region – it’s the fact that despite repeated hammering they just won’t stay down. There’s less to fear however in their appetites eating them out of house and home, or indeed them taking a bite out of the inhabitants, as much as their climbing out of the ground being a digging up of the past that they would prefer remained buried.
Accordingly, Strigoi relies not on the traditional horror techniques to make you jump, wince uncomfortably or be filled with tension of the anticipation of something gruesome being liable to occur in darkened rooms – although inevitably the fact that strigoi can only be permanently despatched by means of cutting out and burning their hearts provides a certain amount of, well, …messiness – but rather tries to capture the sense of something being worryingly amiss through the character of Vlad Cozma (Catalin Paraschiv), a young man who has just returned to his grandfather’s village in Romania after a failure to make his fortune selling burgers in Italy. Finding a wake going on for the death of a local landowner, Florin Cojocaru, he can’t put his finger on just why the town’s mayor and inhabitants seem to be reluctant to investigate the suspicious marks on his body, and persist in their claim that the death was nothing more than an “accident”. Despite having a reputation as something of a “pussey”, lacking the nerve to be a doctor like his father, mother and his brothers, Vlad starts looking into the question that the old man’s death raises about the ownership of the land, an investigation that finds him nonetheless elbow-deep in blood and entrails.
The question of the ownership of the land is an age-old one that stretches back to the confiscation of the land by the Communist government under Ceausescu, and although Ceausescu is now dead and buried – in a manner purposely not unlike the immediate judgement and execution of Constantin Tirescu and his wife at the start of the film – the question of ownership has still not yet been resolved and the legacy of Ceausescu/Tirescu still hasn’t been laid to rest. Returning in the form of modern-day capitalist enterprises buying up the land that once belonged to the local workers, the film goes to great pains to link the complicated issue of the claims of ownership with the outbreak of blood-sucking strigoi with unsettled business. The effort to establish this connection is worthy and certainly gives the film a little more depth than the average living-dead movie, but unfortunately it also hangs like a dead-weight in places. Rather curiously paced, the film rather rapidly despatches the Tirescus at the start and then grinds to a standstill in a seemingly endless scene where Vlad questions a group of the assembled townsfolk at Florin’s wake. Pacing and exposition are also a little bit awkward elsewhere, the whole question of deeds of ownership becoming rather complicated indeed, and perhaps not strictly necessary in such detail.
Elsewhere however, Strigoi is an accomplished piece of work for a small independent film, with strong, well-defined characters and terrific character acting, particularly in the smaller roles. Although Catalin Paraschiv can be a bit leaden as Vlad Cozma, his monotone English-language delivery not always capturing the nuances of a fine and funny script, his role in the film and the running jokes established at his expense, all serve the film well. The cinematography is also impressive, making superb use of the Romanian locations, finding unique and original ways to light and photograph the subject, even when dealing with standard horror imagery and iconography (the burial and unearthing scenes at the railway crossroads in particular are striking and work exceptionally well). As a low-budget, independently-made film, Strigoi may perhaps not be as polished in places as it could be then, but there is clearly a great deal of talent evident here, with the intention of bringing something new to tired genre filmmaking.